I know you have the best of intentions.
But stop. Please.
Because if your little one is crying in pain – whether physical or mental – they are distinctly, 100%, not okay.
I know you want to help but can you imagine if you were hurt and someone just kept on insisting you were okay? You would be furious, not comforted.
Let your child have her moment of pain. Let her be all in on that pain.
You want to assure your child that nothing is seriously wrong, but more than that, it’s hard for you (us) when our children cry.
Because we make it mean that we have failed them in some way.
We have this crazy idea that if only we were watching more closely, he wouldn’t have fallen off the play structure. We think that if we had been there, hands outstretched, she wouldn’t have tumbled off her bike. We think that adults can prevent children from being mean to each other.
We think that our children shouldn’t feel pain.
And part of that is because we love them so much and we only want good things for them.
But there's another reason, too, one that is actually a tiny bit selfish. It’s because it makes us really uncomfortable when our children feel pain. We feel responsible and we hate that. We hate the idea that we failed and we are the reason they are suffering.
But children are full-fledged human beings – albeit small ones – with exactly the same range of human emotions as we have. And they are entitled to the full human experience, even the 50% of life that is negative. And with pain comes learning and growth and opportunity. Pain is a normal, natural, healthy, necessary part of life.
We can’t prevent our children from feeling pain. But we can prevent them from developing coping skills, if we swoop in to solve it or worse, deny it.
My daughter bumped her head on the underside of the coffee table today. Because she had the brilliant idea to lie across the couch and lean way down to clean up the puddle of milk on the floor, underneath the coffee table. On her way back up, wham!
I heard the thud, the pause, the wail of distress that every parent quickly learns means “drop everything and run.”
I scooped her up and just held her. I didn’t say anything. I just rocked her and kissed her damp forehead and waited. Longer than I expected. Maybe there was some big feelings going on about her play date, in addition to the bumped head. Who knows.
What I did not do is say, “you’re okay. You’re fine. Why were you leaning down that way anyway?”
I hear this ALL the time from parents – not realizing I am paying attention – actually blaming their kids for their injuries, “I told you not to do that.”
And I know the parents believe that they have good intentions. They want to help, and they feel powerless, so they figure a quick lecture -- while their child sobs -- will make the child feel better.
But really, telling someone that their injury is their fault never makes the victim feel better. I promise.
The only thing is does is it relieves the parent’s guilt. Because they fear that if they were just sympathetic, it would somehow be admitting culpability for their child’s injury?
Let me tell you, instead. Loving parent, it is not your child that your child fell/got hurt/got their feelings hurt. Short of you deliberately knocking them physically or emotionally down, you are not capable of hurting your child. I promise. You didn't do anything wrong.
Children get hurt. It’s not your fault. It is a healthy, necessary, painful part of growing up.
You don’t need to tell your child anything in the moment of shocking pain. You can manage your brain – just keeping telling yourself “shhh” – and focus on your child’s needs.
You can just be silently sympathetic as you hug them. Or say, “ouch, that really hurt.” Or just “I love you.”
All of these will be comforting.
I promise your child is 100% incapable of processing your “helpful” feedback while they are crying. They are flooded with emotion. Their prefrontal cortex has left the building. That’s why their baby selves come back and they suddenly let us cradle them in our arms.
She can’t process a word you are saying. But she can feel your arms around her. She can feel your sympathy. You don’t need to fix it.
You do need to sit with your guilt and not put it on her. You’re a grownup. You can handle it.
If you really think you need to advise her not to do whatever it was she were doing – I bet the fall was all the teaching she needed – wait 4 hours. Until the big emotions are fully gone.
If the hurt is emotional, my advice doesn't change. Don't give advice. Just wait. Later on, ask, don't tell, what your child wants to do. Listen, ask if her wants advice, don't give it otherwise. Don't step in. Don't solve the problem for her. This is what growing up is for -- learning to negotiate conflict with your loving support. Solving the problem for her means she doesn't get the learning she needs. It's okay if that is really uncomfortable for you (and her)! Nothing has gone wrong. Growing up is hard!
You don’t need – please – to tell him how it’s his fault. he just needs your love. The thing only you can give him. No one else can do it like you can. It’s your most important job.
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Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.